Bird of the north

A bird synonymous with high elevations (except the Sierras of California) or high latittudes (Canadian coniferous forest) — Gray Jays.  These diminutive cousins of our familiar Blue Jay can be found in spruce forests, or where jack or lodgepole pine are present. We found them at the southern limit of their range at Sax-Zim bog in north-central Minnesota, but they can also be found in northern Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of New England states in the U.S.

gray jay

With their small head, shortened beak, and dense body feathers, they are well adapted to the extreme cold of the northern coniferous forest.

gray jay

The beak is shaped more like a chisel, with a sharp pointed end that is handy for stuffing food items into crevices under bark.  This is a key strategy to their winter survival.

Gray Jays are food hoarders.  They stash excess food during the summer and fall into nooks and crevices of particular tree species, first lubricating it well with saliva and forming it into a ball and then stuffing it into place with their bill.  Either the saliva or substances in the tree bark must have anti-bacterial properties because these food caches do not deteriorate over time. That and the deep freeze of their winter habitat ensure that there is always food available all year, and especially during the winter when the usual nuts, berries, and other animal prey have disappeared.

gray jay

Gray Jays are attracted to feeders and other sources of free food in the winter, like this frozen deer carcass left there purposely to provide a source of fat and protein for local wildlife.

The birds here are probably happy to stock up on fat and protein, as they will start their breeding season in a month or two, well before winter temperatures and precipitation have moderated.  Gray Jays have been seen feeding their chicks at -20F!  That’a a tough bird — well-adapted anyway.

gray jay

Like other jays, Gray Jays are social breeders, utilizing the help of juveniles from the previous breeding season to help feed the current clutch of chicks.

Hail, the king…let

It’s called a Ruby-crowned kinglet because it has a crown of royal red feathers, but it’s so tiny, it must be called a king-let.  Only half the size and weight of a Black-capped Chickadee, the 6 gram (about the weight of a nickel) Ruby-crowned Kinglet is one of the most energetic foragers, constantly on the move from limb to limb, barely pausing to consider its next hop.

The male hardly ever shows his brilliant red crown feathers, saving the display for his lady love.

The male hardly ever shows his brilliant red crown feathers, saving the display of a plume of red for his lady love.  He paused for just a millisecond to give me a stare.  I thought warblers were hard to photograph — these guys are even tougher.

Kinglets look like a warbler, but smaller, and have a distinctive white circle of feathers around their eyes and a distinctive white band of feathers on their wings.

Kinglets look and act like warblers, but are smaller, and have a distinctive white circle of feathers around their eyes and a distinctive white band of feathers on their wings.

They have been migrating through Minnesota for the last couple of weeks on their way to breed in the coniferous forests in Canada.  Females weave a globular, domed nest of tiny sticks and branches, suspended from a conifer branch, and then lay an amazing number (as many as 12) of eggs in the cup.  How do they feed that many youngsters on the tiny spiders and insects they find by gleaning tree bark??

"I may be small, but I'm tough!"

“I may be small, but I’m tough!”

More amazing yet is how these tiny dynamos manage to stay warm during sub-freezing temperatures they encounter during their migration north or south, and over their wintering range in the southern U.S.  Apparently they can tolerate overnight temperatures in the negative teens by becoming slightly hypothermic (lowered body temperature), but don’t huddle with a friend as the Golden-crowned Kinglets are apt to do.

Sooty Grouse in the backyard

I stepped outside the door to go hiking on the Tahoe Rim Trail near sunset, and ran into a family of Sooty Grouse (hen and four young).  For those who know their birds, these used to be called Blue Grouse, and they do have a small amount of blue showing on their breast feathers.  But overall, this bird does an amazing job of blending into its coniferous forest floor background.

Mother hen led her offspring across the road and up into the forest.

Note how well the young grouse blends into the background.

Sooty Grouse live in montane foothills, near the coniferous border, and range from northern British Columbia along the coast to northern California and all along the Sierra Nevada mountains.  They are permanent residents where they occur, but have the strange habit of actually going to higher altitudes in the winter (contrary to most other species).  They are quite omnivorous in the summer, eating a varied diet of insects, berries, and leaves, but in winter they subsist on a diet of Douglas fir, hemlock, and pine needles.  In order to balance their winter energy budget on such an indigestible diet, their gut elongates and they grow a large fermentation chamber in the part of the gut analagous to our appendix (theirs is called a cecum).

To maintain their cryptic coloration in the winter, their newly molted feathers are a grayish white color, so they blend nicely into the winter snow.

In the spring, the male molts new, bright brown and gray feathers, and develops brightly colored vocal pouches on either side of their neck which they inflate while spreading their tail and parading in front of the female.

photo from Avian Web